There is a scene in the old Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, which finds the leading protagonist and his erstwhile sidekick Father Dougal McGuire protesting outside their local cinema about the showing of what they construe to be a blasphemous film, writes Mark Wingett.
Ted stands with placard in hand which reads “down with this sort of thing” whilst Dougal’s is more circumspect, reading “careful now”.
The scene always reminds me of the UK’s pub trade, not the underlying keep-the-faith message, but the conciliatory part Dougal plays. It sums up the majority of the trade’s attitude to, shall we say, blowing its own trumpet. It feels awkward about it and would rather keep its head down and get on with things.
In periods when the pub sector has come under pressure – Beer Orders, smoking ban and the growth of the casual dining market, you could understand its reluctance to let anyone in or push any positive news out. However, it now finds itself in an interesting position of arguably propping up the rest of the hospitality sector. The pub is having ‘a bit of a moment’, whilst some of its casual dining cousins are being put through the ringer.
Achieving the right mix
The latest round of trading updates largely played out as expected, with premium and wet-led brands outperforming their more value-food focused peers. The latest Coffer Peach Tracker found that managed pubs performed better than restaurant groups, which saw collective like-for-like sales rise 1.3%, compared to a decrease of 1.5% for restaurant brands.
It was the continuation of a trend that has been growing for the last six months, and as Peter Martin, vice president of CGA, said at the time, “pubs have got their acts together, they have got the food and drink mix right”. At a time of rising labour costs, the financial model (ie higher margins) that come with selling a higher mix of booze must help.
And it is not just on the managed side where improvement and positivity is being found. Tenant-pub company relations have improved over the past year, according to MCA’s authoritative Tenant Track survey. The poll, now in its seventh year, shows the share of tenants saying the relationship with their pub company has improved now stands at 22.4%, up from 21.9% in 2017.
Last summer, we witnessed the conclusion of two of the biggest ever deals in the tenanted pub sector – a sector that in which there hadn’t been a transaction involving more than 500 tenanted pubs since December 2012, back when Cerberus acquired Admiral Taverns from Lloyds Bank. It is expected that more M&A activity will follow over the course of this summer. The most recent has been BrewDog’s acquisition of Draft House. More investment in the sector and another boost to its confidence.
After being on the back foot for so long, how will the sector take advantage of its new-found momentum? Many will argue now is not the time to be harping about its achievements whilst the wider sector suffers; others will say ‘if not now, when’?
My worry is the ability of some, who don’t want to continue to hide their light under a bushel, to get serious about getting their message across. From being on the back foot for so long, this is when a clear communications strategy and programme is vital.
Perhaps they could take a leaf out of the BrewDog play book? Recently the brewer and bar operator hosted its annual general meeting (AGM) – a chance for the business to reflect on the previous year and look ahead to the next 12 months. They produced a number of tweets that got to the crux of its successes, starting with:
“2017 in Numbers: 104,000,000 bottles of beer shipped… 78% growth in UK sales… 1,154 people in our team… 76,634 Equity Punks around the globe”
And finishing with stats from its AGM:
“65,000 pints poured… 8,000 Equity Punks… 300 BrewDog crew, 100 different drinks, 20 different food vendors, 10 kick-ass bands, 7 world-class guest breweries, 1 new cidery, 1 crab cut out stolen, 1 epic day”
I say ‘up with that sort of messaging’ – but just be ‘careful now’ about how it applies to you and how your business uses it.
Mark Wingett is consulting editor to MCA, the business insight journal, newsfeed and research house that specialises in the UK eating and drinking-out market